As lockdowns ease around the world and a semblance of normalcy returns to our societies, it is tempting to simply revert to familiar default modes of communication. As time elapses and we adjust to a new reality of what is being dubbed everywhere as “the new normal,” we may find that we increasingly internalise our thoughts and feelings, and suppress our emotions.
However, in the first few weeks of lockdown, we probably sought out more friends and family than we had interacted with in months. Whether Zoom pub quizzes, Houseparty calls, or lengthy chats, real-time technology enabled us to candidly share our bewilderment, offload anxieties, and temporarily escape our worries in our connections and conversations.
Two months later, we are tired—and it's not just Zoom fatigue. Most days, we may find that while we still crave social connection, we feel like we may have exhausted all meaning and purpose in those conversations. We may resort to discussing Netflix recommendations and not much else. And yet, as we emerge from this period of enforced isolation, sharing our feelings and our experiences is more important than ever.
The Importance of Self-Disclosure
We have always known that “opening up” is valuable. We are taught not to “bottle things up” and of the importance of divulging our feelings and emotions to others. Equally, we are taught to “take it on the chin, like a man, or in our stride"—in other words, not to panic, but to “keep calm and carry on.” The quintessentially British wartime poster with this slogan became a rallying cry for resilience and stoicism around the world.
In therapeutic practices such as psychotherapy and counselling, however, the revelation and disclosure of personal thoughts and emotional conflicts is at the very heart of the process. In psychology, a substantial body of evidence demonstrates just how pivotal the expression of personal thoughts and feelings can be to maintaining our emotional health.
Neuroscientists have found that even simply labelling our feelings can reduce activation in the amygdala—the part that is responsible for the brain’s reactions to any threatening or stressful events and situations. Other research, led by psychologist Dr. James Pennebaker and others, has demonstrated the positive effects of “self-disclosure,” a term defined as revealing personal information on health and well-being.
In fact, one of Pennebaker's early studies showed that self- disclosure can significantly decrease health problems. In a seminal study, students were invited to write about feelings surrounding a past personal trauma for fifteen minutes on four consecutive days. Their health indicators were then compared to those who reported only facts of their trauma, or those in the control condition who only wrote about trivial topics.
The results were startling: four months later, students in the self-disclosure condition had fewer visits to the campus health centre, and reported fewer illnesses. Replication studies have generated similar results, with evidence suggesting that self-disclosure—both in the form of talking and expressive writing—can produce benefits in the functioning of the immune system and is consistent with better health.
It is not just physical and mental health—self-disclosure has additional benefits that spill over into behaviour. Sadly, many of us are going to experience job loss, or at the very least a redefining of our professional roles and work practices and workplaces in the months to come. How are we going to equip ourselves in a way that minimises stress and maximises health?
In a study with recently unemployed professionals, researchers found that those who wrote about the thoughts and emotions that defined their experience of job loss were re-employed quicker than those who wrote about mundane experiences and those who did not write at all. Individuals who wrote about their experiences were able to reframe their negative attitudes towards their job loss and build up the motivation to seek employment again.
Part of the power of self-disclosure stems from the fact that it acknowledges that “inhibition” is stressful. Inhibition is the conscious effort of suppressing oneself from thinking, feeling, or behaving in a certain way. Over time, keeping things to ourselves risks becoming a cumulative stressor for the body, and one that eventually influences immune functioning and physical health. However, opening up about feelings, whether through conversation or writing, reduces the physiological constituents of inhibition and our overall stress.
Several of us have a reluctance to share feelings and emotions, and the very thought of “baring one’s soul” is off-putting and even cheesy. However, it is critical to communicate in times of crisis. Whether a chat with a friend or a group chat, speak frequently and frankly about what you are feeling and experiencing to the chosen people in your life.
Some days this may feel like more effort than others. On these days, especially if you suffer from technology burnout, try writing. Studies show that expressive writing has the same benefits of self-disclosure as talking to someone. Try writing (or typing) about how you are feeling at regular intervals in the week. For three to four days a week, set your stopwatch to twenty minutes and write in free-form. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or sentence structure—the only rule to follow is that once you begin writing, you continue until the time is up.
If your friends or family reach out to you, it is also important to ask the right questions. Too often, we blindly follow the rigmarole of “How’s it going?” or “How are you?” that elicit the same “I’m okay” or “Not too bad” responses without conscious thought. If you are speaking to someone who has reached out to you, it is time to also use prompts such as, “What is the one thing that has made you happy recently?” or “Is there anything you are worried about?” to deepen and give direction and purpose to the conversation.
Opening up to others is difficult, especially in a crisis. But together, we can use the tools at our disposal to stay healthy and make the best of our current reality.